The Word Was God
John begins his Gospel with a description of ‘the Word’, and it is not long before we learn that Jesus Christ was Himself ‘the Word’, for ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14) and was testified to by John the Baptiser (1.15). Indeed his whole Gospel is revealing the earthly life of ‘the Word’.
But why is Jesus called the Word? Certainly in Hebrew thought ‘the Word’ (hebrew - debar) is significant. ‘By the word of the Lord were the Heavens made, and all their hosts by the breath of His mouth’ (Psalm 33.6). This links with Genesis 1 where ‘God said’ and it was done. Thus the term signifies the powerful, creative Word of God, (that this is in mind John 1.3 makes clear), and the Word is the One who carries out the work of creation.
Furthermore ‘the word of the Lord’ is constantly used in the Old Testament to signify God’s specific intentions which He will bring about. The idea behind this is exemplified in Isaiah 55.11 where His word is powerfully effective, ‘so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth, it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it’. It is in fact eternal in contrast with nature (Isaiah 40.8). So ‘the Word’ is the means by which the powerful activity of God is carried out.
Thirdly, in the New Testament, the saving message is called ‘the word (logos) of God’ or ‘the word’ (Acts 6.2; Acts 11.1 and often in the New Testament). Thus the One Who is the Word is the One through Whom God has spoken. Moses had brought God’s instruction (torah = instruction,law) but what the Word has brought is truth in overflowing measure (John 1.16-17).
So the Word is the source and means of creation, the means of the powerful activity of God in the fulfilling of His purposes, and the channel of His truth to men.
But John was living among Greek thought in Ephesus when he wrote these words, and had been for many years. Here he had been brought in contact with Greek ideas on the meaning of the Logos (the Word), and connecting it with the Hebrew ideas, it almost certainly extended its meaning to his mind. For the Greeks used the word Logos of the uncreated ‘Reason’ which lay behind creation, that which was uncreated and eternal, participating in the creation and sustaining of the Universe, distinct from God and yet partaking of the divine essence.
So the idea of the ‘Word’ contains the idea of one who is uncreated and eternal, the source and controller of the Universe, the effective instrument of God. Thus the writer to the Hebrews in Hebrews 1.1-3 says ‘God has spoken to us by a Son --- through Whom also He created the world --- Who --- upholds all things by His powerful word’.
But in the end John’s emphasis is surely on Jesus as the One who IS the Gospel, the Word of God, God’s saving Word. Certainly we are to see that He was the creative Word, and the sustaining Word, the uncreated who was ever with God, but most importantly He was the saving Word, from which all else takes its meaning. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. Thus even from the beginning the Worker of Salvation was pre-eminent..
John 1.1 ‘In the beginning was the Word’. The verb ‘was’ signifies the eternity of the Word. When all else began the Word ‘was already in perpetual existence’. The Saviour pre-existed creation. And as verse 3 adds all else was created by Him.
‘And the Word was with God’. ‘With God’ in the Greek is ‘pros ton theon’ i.e. ‘towards God’, signifying close relationship. We might translate ‘face to face with God in close relationship’.
‘And the Word was God’ (Gk. theos en ho logos). Here the unique nature of the Word is made clear. ‘The Word was essentially of the nature of God’. Jehovah’s Witnesses and others, whose knowledge of Greek is limited, try to lessen the impact of the verse by saying that there is no definite article before theos and therefore it simply means ‘divine’, and then they try to water down the meaning of divine to suit their purposes. However to put a definite article in would have meant the words meant ‘God and the Word were synonymous, the Word was the whole of the Godhead’ and this was clearly not what John meant. It is true that ‘theos’ is adjectival, but it has already been used in the verse to mean essentially God (pros ton theon), and theos immediately follows that statement in close connection (thus saying ‘face to face with God and of that God-nature was the Word’), and thus it is saying that the Word is of the same nature as the God with Whom it was face to face. There was no other way John could have said this so concisely. We might translate ‘what God was, the Word was’.
1.2 ‘He was in the beginning with God’. This repetition is intended to stress what has been said already. In the beginning, before anything was created, the Word and God were there, already existent. This was something both Jew and Greek would agree with.
1.3 ‘All things were made by (or through) Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made’. This links the Word directly with the creation of all things, and therefore with the creative Word. In Genesis 1 creation takes place through the powerful command of God, and the Word is thus linked with God’s creative power. (As we have seen, by equating Jesus with the Word, John is directly linking Jesus with God’s act of creating).
1.4 ‘In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.’ The Word is the source of life. In the beginning He created life, and as John’s Gospel will make clear, He has come, first to reveal life in its fullest meaning, and then to bring, to those who will receive it, new life, spiritual life, overflowing life, which has its source in Him. This life is like a light within, revealing good and evil (John 3.19-20), and above all revealing God. In 1 John 1.1 Jesus is specifically called ‘the Word of life’. Thus Jesus is essentially the saving Word.
To the Greeks also the idea of the Logos (the Reason) was a light within revealing morality and understanding, while the connection between the Word and light was known to the Jews through Psalm 119.105, ‘your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path’ (compare also Proverbs 6.23).
1.5 ‘And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not lay hold of it’. The world is in darkness and He has come with the light of life to dispel that darkness. He Himself is as a light shining in the darkness to make men aware of their sinfulness and need and to lead them into truth (‘I am the light of the world, he who walks with me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life’ - John 8.12), and the word He has brought and the life He offers also come as a light to men to take them out of darkness, and reveal to them the truth. The Greeks thought of the light of reason, John is saying that Jesus has come to make that light effective within.
‘The darkness does not lay hold of it’. The Greek verb has two meanings. This could mean that although the light is shining men refuse to grasp it because they are in darkness, (light has come into the world, but men love darkness rather than light - John 3.19). Or it could mean that the darkness cannot suppress it. The light is triumphant over all the attempts of darkness to snuff it out. Both are true and would express John’s thought accurately.
1.6-9. Up to now he have been somewhat philosophical, but John now goes on to ground the idea of the Word firmly in history. A man came, sent from God, whose name was John (the Baptiser). He came to bear witness to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not himself the light, but a witness to the true light which lightens every man, a light that was coming into the world. He thus pointed to the Word. That this refers to Jesus is immediately made clear (vv.10-11; 14) and also comes out later in the chapter where John the Baptiser bears his testimony to Jesus (John 1.29-34). (It is testimony to how faithful the Gospel writer is to his sources that he does not try to put the term ‘the Word’ or even ‘the light’ on the lips of John the Baptiser).
1.10-11 This true light, the Word, ‘was in the world, and the world was made by Him, yet the world knew Him not, He came to His own home, and His own people received Him not’. Here now it is made clear that Jesus is being spoken of. This was not just some abstract philosophical idea, but a human being who came as God’s Word, not only to the world, but to ‘His own people’, and was rejected by both them, and the world at large. The remainder of the Gospel will expand on this rejection. The verse is full of irony. He made the world, but it did not know Him. He had a chosen people among whom He made His home, but they too failed to understand and receive God’s Word.
1.12-13 Yet there were those who did receive, and who believed on His name, and to them He gave the right to become children of God, because they were born of Him, in contrast with those who had merely human birth. So John makes a distinction between humanity, who view themselves as children of God in a general sense, and believers in Jesus who are children of God in a unique sense through being born of the Spirit (John 3.6). This is the purpose for which the Word has come, to bring men to God and give them the life of the Spirit.
1.14 Now John declares openly the uniqueness of the Christian message. ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only Son of the Father’. The great uncreated Word, the source and upholder of all things, the light of men, became Himself a man, not just in human guise, but in human flesh. Thus John, along with others, was able to behold His glory, a glory revealed in His life and teaching, in the wonder and purity of His life, and the graciousness with which He lived. And having beheld that life he has to acknowledge that it revealed Jesus’ unique relationship with the Father as His only Son. To both Greek and Jew this would be a wonder to be gaped at. The eternal Reason, or the creative, revelatory Word, has become man.
The remainder of the Gospel will be taken up in revealing that glory to others who did not have the privilege of being eyewitnesses.
1.15 So as to leave his readers in no doubt the author now stresses again that ‘the Word’ is the One to whom John the Baptiser bears witness. John the Baptiser says of the Word, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for He was before me’ (compare v.30). In context ‘He was before me’ must intend here to be seen as giving the significance ‘was in existence before me’ as well as was before me in precedence, although John the Baptiser may have meant only the latter.
1.16-17. The author now stresses the overflowing wonder of what He has come to do. Moses had given God’s instruction, which had been made harsh and unreasonable by its interpreters, but Jesus has brought undeserved love and favour and the fulness of truth. Indeed His fulness has overflowed into them in unbounding measure.
1.18 Indeed Jesus is the final revelation of God. ‘No one has seen God at any time, the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father (compare ‘pros ton theon in 1.1 - ‘in close relationship with God’) He has made Him known’. Now we can know what God is really like as never before, for He has sent us His likeness in human form, His final Word to man.